When observers talk about how the bloody crisis in Bangkok is a clash of two different Thailands, they have two particular places in mind.
One is the sheer glass and polished marble of downtown Bangkok, where two months of unrest involving protests by anti-government red shirts—which culminated in Wednesday’s bloody crackdown, shooting and arson—has claimed dozens of lives.
The other is the red shirt stronghold of Isaan, as the country’s impoverished, rural north-east is known. It’s here, and in the country’s north, that the crackdown was greeted with angry demonstrations and the burning of government buildings. It’s also here that fears of conflict spreading beyond Bangkok would likely be realised.
Travelling to the area just before the latest violence, it was clear the main interpretation of Thailand’s crisis—a competition between urban elites and the rural poor–is only part of the story.
In Isaan, there’s no question the red shirts are the dominant force. In the midday heat of the dusty farming town of Ban Phue, Officer Sakda Muthasin eagerly approaches me, despite me having just left his commander’s office. Like most local people, civilian and police, he’s a strong backer of the opposition red shirts, and appalled by bloodshed in Bangkok.
Asked what he would do if crackdowns spread throughout the country, he was blunt: he would disobey orders.
‘If they suppress the red shirts, as an officer, I will help them fight back,’ he says.
In recent weeks, Isaan has often felt just shy of open revolt, and there’s plenty in the region that makes Thailand’s crisis look like a class conflict. The land is a flat and dry continuum of desaturated browns and silver-greens that has long supplied the richer parts of the country with its factory workers, taxi drivers and prostitutes.
But Isaan isn’t a place of quiet desperation. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s popularity stems from populist reforms including cheap healthcare and low-interest rural credit. Everywhere, villages show signs of recent prosperity: newly painted farmhouse extensions, satellite dishes and pickup trucks bought on credit. In south and central Thailand the picture is very much the same, but that hasn’t translated into red shirt support as it has in the north and northeast, where many speak a dialect more closely related to Lao.
Lamoon Woranam, a rice farmer, says everyone here thanks Thaksin for the wealth.
A rural loans scheme brought in under Thaksin has helped him buy fertiliser and pay for labourers, he says, while a one-dollar healthcare scheme also has made his life easier. Now, he says he feels ignored by the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
‘Abhisit has never come here since becoming Prime Minister. Thaksin used to come here three times a year,’ he says.
Lamoon was perhaps being a little unfair. Abhisit did try to visit the nearby town of Nong Khai back in March, but hundreds of red shirt protesters sent him scurrying away by helicopter. Crowds in several north-eastern provinces have in the past months blocked roads and rail lines to prevent reinforcements to Bangkok.
To many middle class, urban Thais, Isaan is a place of rustics and bumpkins and many have shown a stunning lack of sympathy for the deaths in Bangkok, dismissing protesters as ‘buffalos’—slow, stupid and in the thrall of Thaksin. For the protesters, this perhaps rankles more than anything else. On the streets of Bangkok, many protesters have proudly worn the label of ‘prai,’ an antiquated term roughly meaning commoner. In Isaan, red shirt supporters are fully aware that subsequent governments have continued many of Thaksin’s pro-poor policies. But this isn’t the point.
Riding a few blocks from Ban Phue’s station with an officer sent by the local police chief, I stop in at the home of Uraiwan and Teerapon Suwannasang. Teerapon is a retired school principal and Uraiwan is a housewife. Their house is spacious, airy and prosperous and is adorned with blown up posters of their adult children in academic dress (all three children now live in California).
Uraiwan says her family was too wealthy to have benefitted much from Thaksin’s rural populism, although increased wages for teachers helped. She says her radicalisation was caused by the 2006 royalist military coup that overthrew Thaksin. For her, the movement is about dignity.
‘Abhisit’s government has robbed us to be in power today. Before, I was at home taking care of the kids. Now I’ve learned, and I want to be part of this.’
In a newly renovated village house not far from the half-built radio station, Liam Moonguaklang says Thaksin was the catalyst for a new consciousness. Liam was born in the countryside here, but now runs a Thai restaurant in Florida and comes back for family visits. She says the real revolution is that the old patterns of deference and fatalism have fallen away. People in Bangkok may see the people of Isaan as yokels, but these are yokels who now know how the world works.
‘Before we weren’t that smart,’ she says. ‘Now we know what’s going on, how much they cheat us, how much they want us to be slaves for them.’
There is a yellow streak in Isaan. In Udon Thani, one of the main cities of the region, many members of the middle class are typically dismissive of the red shirt protesters.
Rungsri Suprachaisakorn, a local yellow shirt leader and car dealer, says the red shirts are simply misled and paid off.
‘The fact is that Isaan people are honest and gullible. They’re unaware of Thaksin’s tricks. For them Thaksin is like a god.’
In Udon Thani, however, the yellows are outgunned. Many local businesses and political leaders back the red shirts—or stay quiet—while red protest leader Kwanchai Priaphana has become one of the most powerful men in local politics. Yellow leader Rungsri, for his part, says he can’t rely on the police to ensure his safety.
At Kwanchai’s We Love Udon radio station, a red shirt propaganda outlet, there’s little security, despite multiple official attempts to force them off the air. At the governor’s office, by contrast, rolls of razor wire sit unfurled as a precaution.
The station is a temporary, ramshackle affair of trailers and stray dogs, but Kwanchai is building something far more permanent in the fields on the edge of town. One of the radio deejays, Jakapong Saengkum, says there have been multiple attempts to close the station.
‘Luckily the tomato police and the watermelon army have sent news to us before it happened,’ he says, referring to Thai slang for members of security forces that are ‘red on the inside.’
It’s this local strength that’s now causing concern. After the Bangkok barricades fell, and enraged red shirt protesters burned government buildings across Isaan, another Udon Thani yellow shirt leader, Danuch Tanterdtid, sent me an email.
A week earlier, he had made a point of telling me that he didn’t feel intimidated. Now, his tone was flippant but more uncertain.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘When I think about our King, I don’t worry about anything. I am OK. Nothing has happened to me (yet?).’